“Stuck in the Middle with…”

For years I had occasion to drive around the city running errands or just getting from place to place never really paying attention to many of the buildings I would pass as I drove. It’s easy to recognize the locations of chain retailers and corporate offices by the logos on their buildings, but it wasn’t until I started working in this field that I realized how many of the buildings I routinely drove past were actually public housing.

I suppose every city has them. They tend to be non-descript, multi-story buildings with all the charm of a military base in the California desert or a severely neglected college dormitory. In some cases the buildings may look nice on the outside, but the only thing distinguishing them from a high rent high rise is the lack of a manicured landscape and the absence of leased luxury automobiles adorning the parking lot.

For many citizens, these facilities provide low-income (or no-income) housing to people that have limited resources or might otherwise be forced to live on the street. Based on my experiences with public housing, it seems that the majority of people who live in these facilities are baby boomers or older. Either there’s a minimum age limit or I only get called to the facilities where the residents are older and subsequently more likely to need my services.

As it turns out, when people have a limited income, one of the first “budget cuts‿ they are forced to make is health expenses. True, there are plenty of free clinics around the city, but not everyone is able to get to them. The end result is that they don’t go to the doctor to get diagnosed with potentially fatal illnesses. When they aren’t being treated for such an illness, there isn’t a physician to certify their death. That’s where the medical examiner/coroner steps in. As a public service, the state/county/city investigates and certifies the death.

The environment inside these facilities isn’t much more appealing than their exterior. The condition of the surroundings—the people, the structure, and the atmosphere—is a cross between a homeless shelter and a nursing home. Nobody really wants to be there, but there really aren’t any other alternatives.

Believe it or not, the point of all this prologue is to paint a mental picture for the story I’m about to tell—not to generalize every facility and every resident or to argue for socialized medicine.

On one of my earliest visits to one of these facilities, I worked a scene where the death that occurred wasn’t the most unusual aspect of the trip. After assisting the funeral home with loading the body, I offered to accompany the transporter in getting the cot out of the building. The officers left as we did, and when it came time to enter the fourth floor elevator they elected to take the stairs because the body smelled considerably worse than it did before we moved it.

As the elevator descended, it stopped on the third floor. The person waiting there started to enter as the door slid open and stopped so suddenly they almost fell forward anyway.

“I’ll catch the next one.‿

Again we descended and again we stopped. This time the doors didn’t open. I pressed the ground floor button again and nothing happened. After a few minutes of random button pushing, I opened the emergency call door and found the phone receiver had been removed—apparently forcibly. I then rang the alarm which sounded so much like a grade school fire alarm I had images of everyone in the building being evacuated into the street below.

After what seemed like several minutes, the alarm stopped, causing the previously silent transporter to remark, “Maybe the alarm broke too.‿

Not long after the alarm stopped, I heard a man’s voice on the other side of the door.

“Is anybody in there?‿

I answered back, and the man behind the voice began to attempt to force the door open. Every time he managed to get the door open an inch or two, it would snap back into place.

Now if I learned anything from watching “Speed,‿ it’s that Dennis Hopper plays “Dennis Hopper‿ really well and elevators function using cables. Still, I never fully understood how much side to side movement there was in an elevator until the man began jerking forcefully on the door. Psychologically speaking, it feels like six inches per floor of elevation.

Eventually the man invited me to assist him by pulling from the inside. Having personally witnessed the guillotine-like closing action of the elevator door as it slammed shut repeatedly in front of me, I declined his request.

“I’m not sticking my fingers in there!‿

After a lot more effort, he finally managed to pull the door open enough that it gave way and slid to the side. After about twenty total minutes, I learned we’d only descended about four feet. I was about to climb out of the elevator to lift up my end of the cot when the man offered…

“Just collapse your cot and pass it up. This happens all the time.‿

“Great,‿ I thought. “Something to look forward to.‿


3 Responses to ““Stuck in the Middle with…””

  1. July 25, 2006 at 1:36 pm

    I believe this to be my favorite entry you’ve submitted thus far. Thanks.

  2. 2 B
    August 5, 2006 at 7:58 pm

    One of my favorites, too. I like hearing your thoughts as you go about this work. The things you say are compelling whether or not you pollute embellish them with a discourse on social issues. One can hardly debate reality. Thanks.

  3. August 9, 2006 at 9:46 pm

    Bleah! How awful to be stuck in an elevator with a rotting corpse!

    You have a most interesting job, but I don’t know if I could stomach it. How do you get used to the smells?


    I don’t think anyone ever really gets used to the smell though it seems to get easier to supress the gag reflex with practice.

    A Douglas

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